Government’s Constant Harassment of Religious Organizations Serving the Homeless

September 10, 2021
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by Chris Freund • 6 min read

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, government-initiated lockdowns had devastating impacts, from interrupted education to drastic unemployment from shuttered businesses. One consequence was a dramatic increase in homelessness. President Biden’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development called the homeless situation in America “devastating,” adding that the country has a “moral responsibility” to address the problem.

One would think such a crisis and call to action would welcome all hands-on deck.

Of course, churches and religious ministries responded, answering the call to provide services to the most vulnerable, including the homeless. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive contributions of faith-based organizations to the health and welfare of hundreds of millions of Americans. More efficient and effective than government agencies alone, faith-based organizations offer more than temporary assistance; they seek to address the root spiritual needs of the populations they help.

Yet, far too often, even amidst a pandemic, religious organizations serving vulnerable communities—particularly the homeless—have been targeted by the radical Left and the government precisely for their religious character. Motivated to serve by their love of neighbor, these religious ministries often hold beliefs that run contrary to the Left’s political agenda, making them a target of harassment.

First Liberty recently filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of just such a ministry: the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. The mission serves Seattle’s homeless population by providing necessities like food and shelter, but it goes further, assisting its clients with addiction recovery, job placement, and legal services. But the Mission was sued by Matthew Woods, an attorney, after it declined to hire him because he doesn’t share or live according to the ministry’s Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

Remarkably, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against the Mission, concluding that it is required by law to hire someone who doesn’t share or live according to the ministry’s beliefs. Under this opinion, the state can actually require houses of worship and religious non-profits to hire people expressly opposed to their religious mission!

Our brief urges the Court to take the case and make clear that the First Amendment protects the fundamental right of religious ministries to hire people who share the same religious beliefs.

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A Proven Record: Helping Faith-Based Ministries Be a Light to Those in Need

This is just the latest in a string of actions taken against religious organizations seeking to care for the homeless. In 2018, the Downtown Hope Center, a religiously affiliated women’s homeless shelter in Anchorage, Alaska was accused by the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission of violating the city’s non-discrimination policy by preventing a biological male self-identifying as female from residing at the facility. First Liberty successfully defended an attorney who defended the ministry and was charged with discrimination for doing so.

Most recently, the Center filed a federal lawsuit against a city ordinance that forces it to admit transgender males and let them sleep alongside women who have suffered physical and sexual abuse. The ordinance also prohibits the Center from communicating about its religious beliefs on its website and signs posted around its center.

In Tallahassee, Florida, one faith-based homeless ministry—City Walk Urban Mission—stayed open, even expanding beyond its intended mission as a transitional housing facility to provide temporary access to the general homeless population after the city pleaded for help. But when neighbors complained about an increase in the homeless in the area, the City reversed course, began fining City Walk for violating local zoning laws, and then denied the ministry’s zoning application.

In other words, the city is using a problem it created to deny City Walk the freedom to actually help the homeless. The city was happy to drop off the homeless on City Walk’s doorstep during a crisis, but now opposes City Walk’s effort to reduce the number of homeless in the community. First Liberty is fighting on behalf of City Walk to reverse this wrong.

And in Dallas, Texas, First Liberty just won an important victory on behalf of OurCalling, a church and nonprofit ministry that provides various homeless services. OurCalling partners closely with city agencies, as well as healthcare providers and other charities. Because of its religious beliefs, OurCalling remains open 24-hours as a last resort during emergencies if homeless individuals have nowhere else to go.

But in 2018, Dallas ticketed OurCalling for keeping its doors open during dangerously cold weather. Then, when the Dallas city council created a permitting program to allow churches to provide temporary shelter in inclement weather, some on the city council added a buffer zone that excluded OurCalling from participating. Just recently, after working with attorneys at First Liberty, the city reversed course and will allow OurCalling to continue its important work.

As these cases demonstrate, religious organizations do essential work to care for vulnerable communities. Yet, the far Left is quick to weaponize the government to take aim at those ministries simply because of their religious beliefs. Sadly, it is the vulnerable among us who suffer the most when religious ministries are attacked.

With your support, First Liberty will continue to fight for religious organizations to ensure they can continue their divinely-inspired mission to serve the neediest among us.

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